John Mullan on readers’ responses to the novel

By the end of his discussion of Everything Is Illuminated at the Guardian book club, Jonathan Safran Foer was on the analyst’s couch. As one reader asked about possible parallels between a fictional character’s perplexities and the author’s own family experiences, he commented ruefully: “I should be lying on my back right now – this is total analysis.” But clearly he was not uncomfortable about this. He had already invited such inquiries by explaining the ending of his novel with reference to the story of his own grandfather, an immigrant from Ukraine who came to the US after the second world war and died in 1954, still in his early 40s. He realised as an adult that he never knew how this resourceful survivor came to die so young – until his brother found out from public records that their grandfather had killed himself. Everything Is Illuminated had been written several years before this discovery, but somehow, the author thought, it carries his own unconscious suspicion about his grandfather’s fate. And this might explain why the novel, unexpectedly, is turned over to the translator Alex’s grandfather in its last pages.

On the book club website, it was the “voice” of Alex, inept user of an English thesaurus, that provoked most dispute. “I suppose a good deal of the reader’s enjoyment or otherwise is based on whether they find Alex endearing or annoying,” one reader observed. “I think that having any character constantly talk Johnny-Foreigner English is basically always irritating and often patronising,” said another. “The mannered ‘voice’ of the Alex character ruined it for me,” added a third. Readers who came to the book club discussion asked about this. “When you were writing the Alex parts, were you ever concerned that people would think that you were making him stupid?” (This reader was not the only one who drew the analogy with Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat.)

Safran Foer was confident that Alex emerges as “the most sympathetic and the wisest character”. A commenter on the website had a more forceful rejoinder: “the Ukrainian guy in the book is not ‘talking’, but rather writing, laboriously translating Ukrainian into Ukrenglish with a dictionary. He also corrects himself (and is corrected), and gets better as the book proceeds (ie, as he ‘practises’). It’s an aspect of the novel that I thought was done well.” Safran Foer himself hoped that, though Alex was “awfully foolish” in the opening pages, readers would notice that he does not stay that way.

What about the interleaved stories of the Ukrainian shtetl that take us from the late 18th century to the Nazi occupation? On the website, one exasperated reader contrasted this fictional history unflatteringly with those of Gabriel García Márquez and Günter Grass, who “draw upon their childhood and life in order to write their magical renderings of the past”. Another complained of a different “inauthenticity”: “What Safran Foer misses from his depiction of shtetl life is the overpowering influence of religion in day-to-day life.”

“Where was your research for your shtetl stories?” asked one member of the book club audience, who found them “amusing and moving”. Did they actually come from Ukraine? “There is exactly one sentence in the whole book that is the product of the kind of research I think you are asking about,” the author replied. This was the first sentence of the second chapter, which was originally to have opened the book. “It was March 18, 1791, when Trachim B’s double-axle wagon did or did not pin him against the bottom of the Brod River.” There was a real place named Trachimbrod, supposedly after this event, and this was the one detail of “historical folklore” out of which he invented the shtetl‘s population of stories. “All of the stories were pure fabrication.”

And what of the novel’s formal trickery? Commenters on the website – like the novel’s first reviewers – disagreed about Safran Foer’s narrative devices, but readers who came to the book club discussion clearly relished the novel’s liberties. There was particular interest in the crucial passage where Alex’s grandfather recalls identifying his friend Herschel as a Jew when the Nazis made their murderous selection. One reader praised its expressive bending of syntax and eroding of punctuation as the grandfather finally told his story. Another eloquently diagnosed the narrative ambiguities of this passage, which implied the possible Jewishness of the ostensibly antisemitic grandfather. In the film, she noted, he was “definitely shown as Jewish”. In the novel, his collapsing sentences seemed to make him say that he too was a Jew. Safran Foer said he preferred to leave ambiguities unresolved, but the reader (politely) pushed harder. She pointed out that, in the grandfather’s recollections of the events of the 1940s, he is called “Eli” by the friend whom he betrays. What was the significance of this name, only now retrieved from the past, if not to suggest his own Jewishness? Why else would he have changed his name? There was a pause. “I don’t remember. That’s the truth.”

“Are Americans confessional?” Safran Foer asked at the end of the discussion. “We wrongly suppose,” I answered. “Rightly, tonight,” he observed ruefully. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds